The great (English) language divide
It is the language of our national conversation; anything that the English media touches becomes the story for everyone else to chase
Private Eye, the fortnightly British satirical magazine I subscribe to, has a section called Eye Need on its classifieds page. It features the appeals of anonymous individuals; here are a few from the latest issue for you to get a flavour:
“POVERTY TRAPPED Unable to work during trauma treatment. Struggling to maintain dignity and sustain life’s basics. Please help. (Followed by telephone number)"
“WOMAN ALONE UNWELL and truly in need of urgent financial help... (Bank details) Sorry to ask and thank you sincerely"
“POM IN SYDNEY Research opportunity, Coleridge thesis. £15,000. (Phone number)"
“WIDOW SEEKS HELP to prevent repossession. (Phone number)"
All these are from, as I said, just the latest issue. I think of a few things when I go through these, as I inevitably do.
First: such dignity in the way this is done. And second: How would such appeals look in publications here? The answer is that it is impossible to imagine. The poor in India have no voice because they do not speak English.
English is the language of privilege, often confused with merit, but also of debate. The national conversation is totally hijacked by English. Particularly the subjects which should be the proper concern of government. We have more coverage of terrorism, for instance, than malnourishment.
This is not because the English media is more read and more viewed. Of our top 10 newspapers, only one, The Times Of India at No.8, is English, according to the 2014 Indian Readership Survey. But it is more profitable, and I would also argue more influential, than the other nine together. Similarly, it is not that Times Now has more viewers than Aaj Tak or ABP News, far from it.
It’s just that anything the English media touches passionately becomes the story for everyone else to chase. The “language press" or “regional media", as Hindi, Gujarati and the rest are referred to, do not have this ability. It is also true to say that even for them, it is the elite part of their readership and viewership that they aim their material at.
If 500,000 English-speaking children died of malnutrition every year or if 38% of all middle-class children were stunted at age 2, we could be sure that it would be a scandal of unprecedented proportions.
But we are fortunate that we can shut out this side of India efficiently because it cannot speak to us in English. An article in Pakistan’s Dawn (“We Are Invisible...Until We Speak English", 11 January) touched on the same subject. It reported: “A video on social media features a homeless man making an appeal for an office job, while speaking fluent English. His story of betrayal, misfortune, and loss is heart-wrenching. The video went viral thanks to actor Ahsan Khan, and soon enough, he landed a job."
The writer adds: “How many more stories lay waiting to be rescued from the indecipherable noise of Punjabi, Sindhi, Pashto, Urdu, and indeed, Balochi? Far too many." Also true for us, and no chance of those stories reaching us.
The problem in India is quite simple. The media, both print and television, is heavily subsidized for the audience. India has the cheapest newspapers in the world and I have written here before of how dailies even in Pakistan and Sri Lanka are three-four times the price they are in India.
Media owners collect their money from advertising.
Business Standard reported this week (“Times Group Profit Up 44%", 9 February) on the financials of the company publishing The Times Of India. Revenue from advertising was ₹ 6,258.77 crore while revenue from sales of publications (meaning the proceeds from you and I paying subscriptions) was ₹ 703.21 crore, meaning only 10% of the total revenue. This sort of disproportionality is true for all major Indian media companies in English, including HT Media, the firm that publishes Mint.
What it means is that media firms are forced to focus on the part of the business that is meaningful, and that is advertising. And this in turn means focusing content towards those readers whom advertisers see as valuable: i.e., English speakers, who are not only distant from the worries of the majority but also walled away from them by language.
The problem is uniquely Indian. In no other part of the world does the elite speak and read a language different from the masses. The only parallel I can think of is imperial Russia, and that is why Leo Tolstoy’s aristocracy prefers French. But even those characters from War And Peace and Anna Karenina are fluently bilingual. We are a more or less monolingual, Anglicized middle class. And our preferences and prejudices show in the media.
A few days ago, I wrote in Sunday Times about the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, saying I couldn’t understand all the emphasis on littering when the problem really was sanitation. It occurs to me that it may be a ruse by the Prime Minister to get the middle class involved in an issue where they otherwise have no interest: rural sanitation. It then becomes easier to tax them on this, as he has. If this is so, and I am only speculating, it is quite clever. Those who otherwise whine about “inefficient" spending programmes that are actually most humane, are taken in. But even if it is true it is, as I said, a ruse. The fact remains that our poor and needy are removed from us, and we will never engage with their lives as do the readers of Private Eye.
Aakar Patel is executive director of Amnesty International India. The views expressed here are personal.
Read Aakar Patel’s previous Lounge columns here.